Independents set up network

Does the Socialist Alliance have an existence outside of the left groups? It surely does. Over 50 independents met in Birmingham on January 19 - in a conference organised on an email list at a month's notice - to discuss the development of the alliance and debate how to take it forward. Overall it was a very constructive day, marked by keen political debate conducted in a comradely atmosphere. The key feature was the clear level of commitment that everyone present had to the alliance and the high level of political experience in the room. The independents (or non-aligned, as I prefer to call myself) were joined by a number of observers from left groups who, it had been agreed, could attend with speaking rights at the chair's discretion. The Alliance for Workers' Liberty, Socialist Solidarity Network, CPGB and Socialist Workers Party took up the offer and spent almost the whole day listening rather than intervening. The opening session focussed on a series of reports from SA groups around the country. These were a mixture of what was being done, the role of different left groups in the local alliance and any problems that comrades faced in getting work done. There is an enormous unevenness in terms of campaigning, basic levels of activity, and relationships with the organised left groups who are members of the alliance. As expected, there was a lively discussion about the role of the Socialist Workers Party. There was a spectrum of contributions that ranged from comrades who clearly felt unhappy - either because in their view the SWP was not playing a role locally or, by contrast, were packing meetings - to those who argued that the SWP had played a pivotal role in the success of their local alliance and had shown considerable skill in developing and supporting a layer of independents. One speaker, who had a generally favourable attitude to the SWP, felt that everyone was learning how to work in the SA, and that included the SWP. Perhaps the SWP leadership should hold a 'what works in building the Socialist Alliance' day for their members to generalise best practice, as some of their comrades have clearly not got the hang of it yet. It should be acknowledged that the SWP has a relatively large number of comrades and it is likely that some of them will reflect the dogmatic and sectarian practices that have dogged the whole of the left since World War II. Every group has sectarians and small-minded bureaucrats, but because the SWP has managed to hold together a substantial cadre (in a period when Militant, the International Marxist Group and the Workers Revolutionary Party fell apart) they are bound to have more of them. Its membership is not more virtuous than the rest of us. For some this makes the SWP an easy target. Those working in smaller groups or as independents are not immune to sectarianism, but are far less noticeable. Still, there are clearly issues that need to be addressed in some local areas. For example, the reported idea of one local SWPer that seven day's notice had to be given for resolutions going to the monthly members' meeting. My Socialist Alliance, Hackney, would grind to a halt on that basis. Independent members of the national executive who were there on the day made it plain that they would work in localities to resolve difficulties and to develop a framework within which all comrades could successfully cooperate. With all of the left groups it is their overall political line and practice over the next few years that will show what they really intend. The view that the key solution to reducing the weight of all of the left groups in the alliance is to build the SA as independents and get more working class people to join to create a larger organisation was reflected at several points during the discussion. Clearly the alliance will stand or fall on its ability to grow through reflecting, both in politics and organisation, the wider campaigning left and to bring in both organised trade unionists and a new generation of young people who have been mobilised around anti-capitalism. The second half of the day began with two parallel workshops: the first on whether the independents should have a bulletin and the AWL/CPGB suggestion of an 'unofficial' SA paper; and the second on the role of women in the SA. These workshops were decided on by the meeting itself after it had comprehensively rearranged the agenda at the start of the day. Given that there were only 40 minutes available for the workshops due to lunch arriving late, the bulletin discussion was heavily curtailed and the discussion of the CPGB/AWL initiative was also not given much time. Many people were in favour of a bulletin of some sort for independents, but no obvious view emerged as to what its character should be and who should be responsible for it. This discussion began to indicate that, as should be expected, the independents present were far from a coherent bloc politically, coming from all along the political spectrum represented in the alliance, and simply represented themselves in that room on that day. In contrast, whilst some spoke in favour of the idea of the AWL/CPGB proposal, it did not get such a good response in the brief time devoted to it. A number of independents were opposed to it in favour of supporting the development of local activist bulletins; others viewed it as the AWL and CPGB trying to build a bloc against the SWP. Some felt that such a move was against the spirit of the December 1 conference vote and that the AWL and CPGB should win the argument at conference first. In the end it was left to those who were interested in the idea to get in touch with the AWL or CPGB. I did not attend the workshop on women in the SA, but the brief report-back to the afternoon session focussed on the need for the SA to recruit more women to what is a very male organisation. It was felt that we needed to take childcare more seriously. (I understand a crèche is being booked for the SA-sponsored trade union conference on March 16). The final session was a round-up of the day's discussion and a number of indicative votes were taken. First, it was agreed to continue as a network; but then there was real confusion on how the idea of having a bulletin should proceed. From where I was sitting about 60% voted in favour of a bulletin of some sort. Lastly it was overwhelmingly agreed to meet again in June. Dave Osler and Steve Godward should be congratulated for taking the lead in building this event. It was open and allowed the reflection of the wide range of views of those who attended. Given that it was organised at such short notice, the June meeting should be larger and even more politically animated following the March 16 trade union conference and the local elections in May. There is a clear role for such a network - to be the best builders of the Socialist Alliance and to work alongside the left groups in determining how that can best be done. Will McMahon Hackney Socialist Alliance * Coy comrades